Have you ever wondered how Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech? There is no doubt his speech is one of the most historic speeches of the 20th century, staying widely recognized almost 60 years after it was delivered. Let’s take a look at the history and making of this iconic masterpiece.
This may come as a surprise to many, but King didn’t actually write the speech himself. It was first drafted by his advisers Stanley Levison and Clarence Jones. King later made revisions to it the night before and morning of delivering the speech. He was also helped out by his adviser Wyatt Walker.
“When it came to my speech drafts,” wrote Clarence Jones, who had already penned the first draft, “[King] often acted like an interior designer. I would deliver four strong walls and he would use his God-given abilities to furnish the place so it felt like home.”
A Few Facts About King’s Speech
While the speech holds a permanent place in history, its existence is a product of King’s spontaneity and previous references to his “dream” of equality and an end to racism. What was delivered on August 28, 1963 came as an amalgamation of several drafts written over the years as King spoke at various public forums and educational institutions.
One notable fact about the speech is it references historic national documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Emancipation Proclamation and United States Constitution. King also alluded to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with his opening line of “Five score years ago.”
As with many high-profile political figures, King and his team had to take precautions while he traveled and spoke around the country. The day before, King and his advisers met to discuss the speech in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, because it would be harder to wiretap than a suite. Ultimately, King went to sleep around 4:00 a.m. the night before the speech. He handed his final draft over to his aides to print and distribute. The speech was titled “Normalcy, Never Again.”
“Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
A crowd of over 250,000 people had gathered at Lincoln Memorial to hear King and other speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Many were aware of King’s powerful oratory, but few expected this speech to be as impactful as it was. Interestingly enough, the speech started out slow and didn’t garner the audience’s reaction right away. King’s advisers and closest friends stood behind him as he delivered his speech, and they recognized that he hadn’t tapped into his oratory gift just yet.
It was towards the end of the speech that famed gospel singer and King’s longtime friend Mahalia Jackson cried out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Prompted by this, King set the speech aside and began speaking unrehearsed. He spoke about his dream— of equality and human rights for Black people in the U.S.— and captivated the audience sitting before him.
The Speech Today..
The speech remains salient even today for a number of reasons. It serves as an iconic marker of the progression of the Civil Rights Movement and reflects on King’s unwavering struggle through the years.
King’s eloquence, preacher-esque delivery style and charisma are what drew crowds of thousands to hear him speak every time. This speech serves as a symbolic marker of the progression of the Civil Rights Movement and King’s unwavering struggle through the years. It will continue to be a masterpiece of rhetoric for years to come.
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